The Science Behind How Music Can Boost Your Workout

Whether you’re lifting weights or aiming for a 10k PB, going the distance without your favourite tunes to hand can be an impossible task. We look at why this is the case (and we've even put together our own workout playlist to help take your workouts to new heights).

woman listening to music and working out

We all know them. They look like us. They act like us. But there’s something strange and disturbing about them. Something unsettling lurking just below the surface. We’re talking, of course, about those friends who exercise without music. Your friend who heads out for a morning run and leaves their headphones at home. Your colleague who thinks they can smash her HIIT session without a soundtrack.

To most of us, this simply doesn’t make sense. Music is a distraction. A motivator. A reward, even, for our hard work. Turn off the tunes and you’re left with your own thoughts – often telling you how uncomfortable you feel, and why you need to stop working out immediately.

There is, naturally, a science to all of this. It’s one Costas Karageorghis, Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at Brunel University London has been studying for a while. When it comes to the link between performance and decent tunes, he’s the man to talk to (for regular updates on his work, you can follow his group’s research on Twitter).

For the 101 on how 808s can take your workout PB off the charts, read on…

How music can boost your workout performance

If you’ve ever aimed to surpass your current fitness goals, you’ll know that music can help you break through barriers. This isn’t just because a nice tune gets stuck in your head, though. There’s a real, physiological effect behind it all.

“The human nervous system is limited in its capacity therefore the processing of music prevents, to a degree, fatigue-related symptoms from entering focal awareness,” explains Karageorghis. “In other words, music reduces ‘exercise consciousness’.” In other words, music can literally block the signals in your brain that tell you how tired you are, helping you dig deep and push further.

But Karageorghis points out that this only works with low-to-moderate intensities of exercise and that when we’re going full-out, it’s difficult for us to take in external cues. In this case, music can distract some of our focus on the body, and what Karageorghis calls “fatigue-related cues”.

Karageorghis adds that, outside of your max effort zone, the right music can also provide stimulation and make you feel more energetic and mentally positive during your workout. “In our studies of how music affects mood during exercise, we generally find that well-selected music lifts mood by 10–15% so you feel happier and more activated,” he explains. Karageorghis’s research group found that this is because music stimulates sub-cortical areas of the brain which may be linked to the pleasure centre.

“Well-selected music can lift mood and make the running/workout experience more pleasurable,” says Karageorghis. “What is interesting about the mood-related effects of music is that they appear to hold even at relatively high exercise intensities (e.g., 80% of maximal heart rate). Music seems to touch the affective centres of the brain and thus can help us to feel better, even when we’re under duress.”

woman listening to music while she works out

What types of music are best for working out to?

We’ve established that music can have a substantial effect on your performance, but (personal taste aside) is all music created equally?

Expanding on his previous comments, Karageorghis explains that tempo is important. As a rough guide, tunes between 160-180bpm are great for a final sprint when you’re out for a run, while music of 140bpm and upwards can help you settle into a middle-distance pace. Anything slower than that is good for super long distances, and recovery or cool downs.

But, beats per minute isn’t the only thing we need to consider. “Lyrics can have an empowering effect and so selections need to be made with your desired activity in mind,” adds Karageorghis. “There is an abundance of positive affirmations that can be found in musical lyrics (e.g., “keep on running”, "work your body", "I like to move it", "work hard play hard”, etc.).”

While these affirmations might not be found in all music, Karageorghis says our personal connection to a song, and our positive associations with it can be highly beneficial too. “Certain tracks are embedded in sporting culture (e.g., ‘Gonna Fly Now’ from the Rocky film series) and bring with them not just motivational sounds, but a wave of positive feelings associated with the track,” he says.

Interestingly, Karageorghis explains that even a slower song with an uplifting message like Labi Siffre’s ‘Something Inside So Strong’ (80 bpm) can get you moving. “I have found that many experimental participants interpret rap music as being up-tempo when, in actuality, it usually has a relatively slow tempo (usually 75–95 bpm),” Karageorghis adds.

“Additionally, timbre is an essential consideration in a sporting context and often determines the combination of instruments that are used,” Karageorghis explains. “For working out, the sounds need to be bright and energising to match the high levels of exertion that are typically required.” So, uplifting, higher-pitched tunes will be better than, say, bass-heavy drone music.

As for more relaxing or focused workouts, Karageorghis points to sedate musical selections, such as those provided by artists such as Enya, Enigma or Ludovico Einaudi.

Ready to blast your favourite songs and feel the benefit? Now all you need is your gym kit and a good pair of earphones…

The 'Workout with Huel' playlist

You've done the reading, now it's time to sweat. Give our specially curated Power Mix playlist a go and unlock that 1 percent.

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